Scotland and the 2015 General Election

Two weeks from today, those who come under the designation of British will take to the polls to vote for the Members of the UK Westminster Parliament. There are exceptions to this of course, such as those who have already voted by post or by proxy, and those who won’t see the point in participating at all.

The number of people who end up lumped into the inaccurately labelled category of ‘apathetic voters’ is substantial, a phenomenon common in mature political democracies the world over. This often elicits protestations that the disengaged and disaffected should spoil their ballots rather than abstain, or that there is some sort of moral imperative to cast a ballot due to the sacrifices of those that have come before. These tired old arguments come around like the seasons, and have little discernible effect. The simple truth for many is that there is little point in taking even a symbolic stand if you don’t believe there is any real prospect of change.

This time may be different.

It can be easy to forget in amongst the laboriously prosaic campaigning, but this time we find ourselves at a genuinely exciting moment in British political history – whatever the outcome of the election may be. The old assumptions and expectations have been broken down in a way that few people would ever have predicted.

One of my earliest memories relating to the general election that didn’t just involve getting the day off school was when Tony Blair’s New Labour party were seeking to gain power from John Major’s Conservatives in 1997. The Daily Record displayed a headline that stated: ’18 Reasons We Need a Fresh Breath of Blair’, one for each year the Tories had been in power.

Back then it seemed like there might be real change afforded by voting for Labour, but of course, that seems almost laughable now. What was on offer was nothing more than the illusion of something different; a choice between two barely indistinguishable parties, cloaked in rhetoric and false promises. This was just the other side of the coin in a bleak partisan system where nothing really transformative ever took place. Nowhere else was this more keenly felt than in Scotland, where each successive election just seemed to confirm that voting had no impact upon the actual result.

Tony Blair and George Bush

Now, things seem fundamentally different. The far right has inevitably smartened up enough to present itself as a credible threat in the form of UKIP and Nigel Farage, simultaneously managing to make the Tories appear more rational, whilst also pulling them to promise more extreme action. The Lib Dems have all but completely extinguished their relevance as anything other than a party designed to prop up whoever is in power at any given time and needs a hand – the Parliamentary equivalent of a temp agency. Labour are having an existential crisis, faced with a complete meltdown in their traditionally safe heartlands… and not only do we now have televised debates, but the Greens and Plaid Cymru are represented on there as well (though why Patrick Harvie wasn’t included in Scotland is still a mystery).

Nigel Farage

Even the ever dependable First Past the Post system, so desperately lauded by the mainstream parties for its ability to produce sizeable majorities (and therefore allegedly ‘stable’ governments) has failed to achieve even that basic task. The irony of that is compounded by the fact that not only do we have a popular SNP government in Edinburgh, but that they have a majority under a proportional system designed specifically to prevent such a scenario from taking place. Ouch.

Nicola Sturgeon

It should not be underestimated how fascinating all of this is, especially when we remember the situation that our American friends are still trapped in. However, sadly the details are at risk of being nothing more than window dressing if it doesn’t actually have the potential to produce real change for people. Whether the Greens are getting on TV a bit more often is irrelevant if it remains the case that they cannot garner enough nationwide support to be in a position to actually make an impact. For many across the UK, this is still the reality they are faced with when deciding how to vote. This is not the case for those of us in Scotland.

Scotland Westminster

One of the main underlying issues around the debate over Scottish independence was a dissatisfaction with the status quo; a rejection of the helplessness of the Westminster system that favoured those already in positions of power. People were fed up of being stuck with the Hobson’s choice between red or blue – though it is extremely generous of me to imply that the Tories were ever actually really an option. For many who voted yes, there was a crushing resigned fear that the result would signify a return to the old situation, but it hasn’t. Rather than doggedly stick to supporting a single party in a system that offers no alternatives, for once we are able to vote in such a way that not only will it actually count, but in a way that could also bring about a genuine shift in politics across the UK. Hell, arguably it’s already happened.

For the first time, our ballot feels like it actually matters again, and that those in Westminster are having to sit up and take notice. You can’t tell the Scottish people that they will be better as part of the United Kingdom and then expect them to not want a seat at the head table.

Image of Tony Blair and George Bush is in the public domain.
Image of Nigel Farage from Euro Realist Newsletter used under Creative Commons licence.
Image of Nicola Sturgeon from the Scottish Government used under Creative Commons licence.
Image of ‘Scotland Place – Westminster’ by me.

Advertisements

Scots Words

The Scots language. Something that comes naturally to us, but completely bewilders others when they hear us speak.

Lots of people (including many Scots) don’t realise that ‘Scots’ is a distinctly separate entity from English – more than just an accent or regional dialect. Just like many languages, there are types that vary both in level and in the time period that they are from. Ancient Greek differs substantially from the Greek that they speak in Athens today, for example. Acts of the first Scottish Parliament were in Auld Scots, and it was something that I had to read as part of my degree.

Licensed under CC, by demis.nl, via Wikipedia.
Licensed under CC, by demis.nl, via Wikipedia.

Unlike back then, the Scots we speak today is irrevocably tied up in English. The roots of many words are the same or similar, and it’s overwhelmingly a spoken language rather than one that would be written down. I’d be hard pressed to even spell half of the things correctly, and there’s no real formal standardisation that I’m aware of.

As I read recently, it’s probably the case that Scots speak a mash of Scots to each other, but English to others, automatically. It’s why it feels so good to chat to a fellow Scot when you’ve been abroad for a while… The patterns and words you use are completely different when you know the other person will understand you. If you’re not convinced, get even the most ‘well-spoken’ Glaswegian drunk with a group of pals and you’ll see how quickly things change.

That said, a lot of the words seem to fall out of common parlance, especially amongst those that consider themselves to be middle class, or who go through higher education. If you are constantly measured by your ability to use precise (and correct) language – whether in academia, personal life, or an increasingly globalised workplace – Scots gets pushed to the back of your mind. Some words are dismissed (wrongly) as being nothing more than an accent, or as an improper bastardisation of English… like ‘hoose’, ‘heid’, ‘widnae’, ‘naw’, ‘aye’, or ‘haun’…  whilst others simply become a chore to have to explain to people.

For me, having spent a lot of time out of Scotland over the past year, and even more time around non Scots, I’ve found myself wondering about these words; the words that I remember fondly from when I was younger. Scots words often fill gaps where English just can’t adequately express how you feel at certain times, and often have a deep emotional connection as a result. The more I am away from home, the more maintaining a cultural connection is important, and the more I want to make sure these words don’t just slip away.

So, as a result, I’ve decided to make a conscious effort to bring more Scots back into my everyday vocabulary. Part of the whole problem has been that because these words just seem so natural, it’s not always easy to identify which words are actually Scots… or until you realise that you have been avoiding them instinctively around people who won’t be familiar with them.

To help jog the memory, I’ve started reading some books that are written in varying degrees of Scots, and been noting down some of the words that I remember and want to use more. I’ve listed them below, but haven’t bothered with those that are obvious due to their proximity to English, or that are widely known outside of Scotland (wee for small, gie for give, etc).

The definitions are my own. You should know that by their nature it’s hard to articulate exactly the feelings behind the words, or when you would use them, but it should give a good idea.

Birl – Spin around. Like ‘geez a birly‘ – where an adult would pick up a kid by the arms and spin them around really fast. Or when you are birling around at a ceilidh – a traditional Scottish party.

Close enough.
Close enough.

Bosie – This is really a Doric word – a dialect of Scots used in the North East of the country, so not all that common down in Glasgow where I’m from. However, it’s such a great word that I’d be a dafty not to include it. Imagine a hug. Nice, aye? Now imagine having one of your favourite people in the world wrap you up in their arms whilst wearing a huge fleece jumper. That’s a bosie. Warm, safe, and affectionate; the best kind of hug you’ll ever get.

This is as close as I could find to visually represent what a bosie feels like.
A bit like this.

Breeks – Trousers. ‘Yer breeks are fallin’ doon!‘.

Canny – Careful, smart, cunning. Being clever about how you act. ‘He was aye canny wae how he spent his cash.‘ Like him or not, Alex Salmond was often described as being a canny politician, due to the clever strategies he used to get what he really wanted from the Westminster Government.

Clype – To tell on somebody/dob them in/snitch on them. Both the act and the person. ‘Don’t clype on yer brother‘, or ‘she’s a wee clype‘. Not a good thing.

Coorie – Cuddle up, snuggle in. A warm, affectionate word. I associate this with a mouse coorying in to blankets for some reason. ‘Come here and coorie in tae me‘. Should note that this isn’t a sexual thing.

Crabbit – This is fairly well known, but it’s still great. It means to be in a bad (or ‘crabby’) mood. ‘Stoap bein so crabbit‘, ‘he’s just a crabbit faced git‘.

Dreep – Means ‘drip’, but I always knew this in relation to a certain way of lowering yourself down off of a wall, to avoid hurting yourself. You’d ‘dreep’ down till you were hanging off by your fingers to reduce the distance to the bottom from your feet. ‘Ahll huv tae dreep ower it‘.

Dreich – This is a great word, which gets used a lot. Probably unsurprisingly, given what it refers to. It describes the weather, and is for when it’s raining, but more than that; painting a picture of a day where it seems like everything is grey: the sky, the buildings… everything.

Dreich
Dreich

Drookit – Soaking wet. Completely drenched. Almost always due to the rain, or if it’s snowed and then melted… Usually in reference to your clothes when you literally couldn’t be any wetter.

Fankle – All tied up in a knot, like a tangled mess. ‘The cord’s aw fanklet‘.

Gallus – Daring, confident, bold, cheeky. I always imagine somebody doing something with a knowing grin on their face. It’s usually used in a positive rather than negative way. Being gallus isn’t a bad thing. Even if somebody is a bit of a ‘gallus prick‘. My pal Kerry loves this word.

Guddle – A mess. ‘He’s got himself aw in a guddle‘.

Keich – Not to be confused with the egg pie ‘quiche’, although if you dislike quiche, you could well describe it as keich. Keich means crap. ‘Hahahah you’ve got bird keich on ye!‘.

Quiche. Picture licensed under CC. By Micah Elizabeth Scott.
Quiche, not keich. Picture licensed under CC. By Micah Elizabeth Scott.

Lug – Ear. Often heard when a parent is threatening to give their kid a smack for doing something cheeky. ‘I’m gonnae skelp yer lug!‘.

Scunnered – Completely fed up, done in. When you’ve had enough and can’t be bothered with something or someone anymore. This word is great for when you’re really at the end of your tether, and nothing else quite expresses it adequately.

Swatch – If you hear something akin to ‘Haw, geez a swatch!‘ whilst traversing the streets of Glasgow, never fear. It does not mean that the other party wants to nick your over-priced designer watch from you. Rather, it means they want to have a look at whatever you’re looking at at the time.

Overpriced watches. Picture licensed under CC, by choo chin nian
Overpriced watches. Picture licensed under CC. By choo chin nian

Wheech – Onamatopaeic, in that it sounds like what it is when you say it. The only way I can explain this is through an example: ‘Just wheech it over the wall. Naebdae’ll know!‘.

Wheesht – A command to be quiet, to shooosht. When somebody keeps talking after you’ve said to stop, it’d be fair do’s to say: ‘Wheesht!‘. Also used in different ways though, like to tell someone to ‘Haud yer wheesht.’

There’s endless amounts more, but these are some of the best. If you’re Scottish, we should definitely make more of an effort to retain these words. Don’t be a walloper; they’re too expressive to let go.

For a bit more on Scots, check out this great post.

The Tories, Human Rights, and Scotland

Ever since they climbed into power on the shoulders of the Lib Dems, the Conservative Government has been threatening to do any number of the following:

  • Defy the judgements of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR)

  • Repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA)

  • Withdraw from the ECHR entirely

Aside from point one, where we saw the disgusting braying of mis-guided MPs as Westminster voted not to give (any) prisoners the ability to vote – thus racking up penalties against taxpayers in the process – these stated aims have so far been tempered by the unwillingness of the Lib Dems (or anybody else) to support them.

Now we hear that if the Conservatives win a majority in Parliament next year, that they will move to do some, or all of the above. Of course, we’re not entirely sure yet, as they haven’t seen fit over their entire term in power to begin to explain what a so-called ‘British Bill of Rights’ might look like. Plenty has been written on the lunacy of these plans by those far more able and influential than I, so I won’t spend time going over the same ground. However, one of the more interesting (and perplexing) possibilities that has been floated is the power and possibility of the Scottish Government blocking any removal of human rights obligations in Scotland, even if the situation is different in the rest of the UK. As the prolific blogger PeatWorrier commented:

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 11.59.45

A few people have been discussing this possibility already, so it’s worth having a look at this in a bit more detail. Firstly, it’s important to know why the Tories are so hell-bent on attacking the conception of human rights as we know it.

Why do the Tories hate human rights so much?

The newspaper headlines will paint a story of pragmatic and concerned Conservatives who wish to deport ‘murderers, terrorists and rapists’, or stop them from having the vote. The notion of human rights as some sort of whiny legal set of technicalities akin to the dreaded ‘health and safety’ or ‘political correctness gone mad’ is presented, and almost always accompanied by sensationalist examples of people claiming that perfectly reasonable behaviour is infringing upon their rights. That these arguments don’t actually fall under the gambit of the HRA or the ECHR is irrelevant, so long as the words ‘human rights’ are in there somewhere, it’s enough to send Daily Mail readers everywhere into a frenzy-induced spell of foaming at the mouth.

However, there are two real main reasons why the Tories hate human rights. These are:

  • A dogged, and overblown sense of British sovereignty (the word British is important)

  • The inability to push through decisions whilst in Government because of the restrictions imposed upon them by the HRA and ECHR

This isn’t about any one example that we have seen over the past few years.

It isn’t about giving the prisoners the vote, or not being able to deport ‘that guy with the hook’, or even Christian Bed & Breakfast owners. This is about the Conservative Government’s ideological position – a uniquely British sense of entitlement based on a fundamental Diceyan view that nobody can over-rule a decision of the Westminster Parliament – not even Parliament itself.

This view is not without merit, and the positives of which are regularly put forward in arguments posited against the ‘meddling’ of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg. The theory is that Parliament is voted for by the British people, and so that Parliament should be sovereign at any one time, not bound by the decisions of any other body, including previous Parliaments.

However, whilst this idea of Parliamentary sovereignty sounds grand and principled, and no doubt served the Empire very well in times gone past (thank you very much), it is almost certainly no longer the case. As proponents of the Union were quick to declare during the debate on Scottish independence: ‘now is not the time to fragment communities and cause division, we are better together.’ What they failed to mention of course is that the British idea of Parliamentary sovereignty is incompatible with the idea of collective governance, or supranational jurisdiction. That is the real threat to the international bonds that tie us to other countries through trade and mutual obligations – not the independent status of a country itself.

Scotland Can’t Keep the HRA or ECHR Alone

The two possibilities opened up by the Conservatives lately are:

  • The UK would ‘negotiate’ changes to the relationship with the ECHR, so that decisions of the ECtHR would merely be ‘advisory’ rather than binding to Westminster and British courts

  • Failing the above, the UK would seek to withdraw from the ECHR completely, and establish a ‘British Bill of Rights’

It’s safe to say that the chance of the first scenario happening is slim to none, so we’ll focus on the second.

To quote from the Scotsman article mentioned above:

But if the opinion of Scotland’s elected representatives at Holyrood is to keep the Human Rights Act and its final court in Strasbourg, would Mr Cameron really be prepared to override that opinion?

The suggestion is that if the UK were to withdraw from the ECHR completely, that somehow Scotland could retain the current system separately. This ignores how the system actually works in practice.

Scotland and the ECHR: 

For the avoidance of any doubt, Scotland is not an internationally recognised state, nor a (separate) member of the European Council. It would be impossible for Scotland to remain part of the ECHR if the UK was to pull out. We had our chance for this to be a possibility, and we voted no. Equally, Scotland would have no special say over any other British region in whether or not the elected Westminster Government decided to remove the UK from the ECHR.

Scotland and the HRA: 

The Human Rights Act is written in to the fabric of the Scotland Act 1998 (which brought about the creation of the Scottish Parliament). As a creature of statute, the Scottish Parliament cannot pass laws that are incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998, and are required to make a statement effectively recognising this before a law is passed on for Royal Assent. This is part of the reason why it has been suggested that Scotland should be ‘consulted’ before doing away with the HRA. Whilst this makes for an interesting political confrontation between the Scottish Parliament and Westminster over the type of country we might want to live in, it doesn’t seem clear how exactly Scotland could be consulted, or have any sort of say in the possible repeal of the HRA.

Accountability: 

Technically, the obligations contained within the HRA could be transposed into an Act that only applied to Scotland. This would require Scottish public authorities to act in a manner which is compatible with the ECHR rights, and allow individuals to bring actions against them where their rights were breached. However, it is at this point that things begin to fall apart.

The force of the ECHR comes from the ECtHR in Strasbourg. This greater authority that exists at a level above member states is necessary to protect people from decisions of their governments. Whilst the conversation in Scotland isn’t framed this way at present, it would be difficult to see where this force would come from should Scotland retain some form of HRA separately to the rest of the UK.

For example, if a human rights claim was raised against a decision of the Scottish legal system, who would hear the case? As already explained, Scotland would not be a signatory, and so recourse to the ECtHR would not be possible. There would be no appeal to courts elsewhere in the UK either, as (god forbid) they don’t have jurisdiction, and they would be ill-equipped to do so in any event – given that they would be operating in a completely different rights based framework.

Whilst a commitment to the operation of human rights in Scotland could be adopted, and enforced by the Scottish Parliament, it would lack the necessary accountability to operate in anything but a shadow of the form that currently exists.

This renders the proposition completely unworkable.

I believe that it is right for the Scottish Government to defend the HRA, and our continued membership of the ECHR – this is something that we all need to do. However, to suggest that Scotland could somehow operate the European human rights framework separately from the rest of the UK is fanciful.

For a more detailed legal look at this topic, see this post on the UK Human Rights blog.

Scottish Independence: Why I Am Voting Yes

Scottish Independence

In less than two weeks, the people of Scotland will have voted on whether or not we wish to be a country independent from the existing United Kingdom.

There has been a huge amount of debate, which predictably hasn’t all been the most civilised at the best of times. I’ve tried to resist the urge to get involved in every online discussion, confining my personal views to in-person gatherings of a few friends (and over a lot of whisky). The times I have chosen to delve in, I’ve been attacked (from both sides) in the most bizarre and arbitrary ways. Like many others, I feel like it’s often more hassle than it’s worth to nail your colours to the mast.

All of that said, I passionately believe in Scottish independence. I don’t expect you to agree, but it would be remiss of me not to explain why.

Here’s the main reasons why I am voting yes:

The following is dependent on the understanding that despite the current political union, Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland are all distinct countries. If you disagree with that premise, then that becomes a whole different set of questions.

Constitutionally, Scotland’s people have no practical say in the government of the United Kingdom.

For me, this is the most important reason of them all.

Even if every eligible Scottish voter was to vote for one single party (and that’s not too far off the truth), it would make no real difference to the outcome of the UK General Election. As a result, there is very little pressure on governments in Westminster to listen to the needs of those in Scotland. How can there be accountability if there is no way for Scottish voters to impact those who get into power?

Scotland has a distinct political identity from other parts of the UK, with different priorities and problems. This is evidenced by the different approaches to issues such as higher education funding, and the detention of families seeking asylum.

If the Scots want to vote for the Tories, or decide to have nuclear weapons on the Clyde, or to ditch the European Convention of Human Rights… then that is fine. Ultimately, whether Scotland votes to the left, right, or middle is irrelevant. Whatever the choices though, let’s make sure that the people who live in Scotland decide for themselves, and have a real say over the government that holds power over them.

I believe that Scottish people need to take responsibility for their own decisions, and not just whinge about ‘the English’, or Thatcher, or ‘that government we didn’t vote for’.

As the result of the makeup of the UK government, Scots currently have the most convenient get out of jail free card in any debate. Sure, it might be awful how immigrants are treated, or that we sent troops to Iraq in pursuit of a war that was later discredited, but hell… we didn’t vote for the government that made those calls anyway.

This is a dangerous situation, which only serves to increase complacency. Things might suck, but that’s not really our responsibility. We’ve been marginalised politically, so they can sort it out.

Scotland has to take responsibility for its role and actions in the world – both the successes and the failings – not just hide behind the current political situation. An independent Scotland will no longer be able to blame all of our flaws on our neighbour south of the border – which can only be a good thing.

Scots have no business voting on issues that only affect English people. The West Lothian question needs resolved once and for all.

This anomaly created by devolution remains unresolved. Funny how nobody really likes to bring that up now though, eh? Political parties (mostly Labour) have cynically abused the fact that Scottish MPs can push through their own selfish policies against the wishes of local people. This has to stop, and independence is the logical resolution. Leave decisions that affect people in a particular area to those that are elected to represent the people that live there.

Here’s what I’m not concerned about:

There’s a whole host of common issues that are brought up in the course of almost any discussion about independence, despite their basis being shaky at best. Most of these are addresses in the pro-independence publication the ‘wee blue book‘. Here’s a few in particular that I hear often, and that I’m not concerned about.

Division

Denying self determination on the basis that we should seek to avoid disagreement is fundamentally flawed. We do not live in one state-less, unified world; determining the limits and practicalities of political power is something that is perfectly normal.

Asserting that your own people should make their own decisions is not about encouraging conflict but about taking self-responsibility. Voting for independence isn’t a statement against any neighbour, but an insistence that you have the right to control the decisions that affect your future. We support this in plenty of other situations, so let’s not reverse that because it doesn’t suit us with regards to Scottish independence.

Giving up your right to have a real say in your life in order to avoid conflict is neither a healthy, nor sustainable option – and a bad argument for rejecting independence.

Currency and Borders

The contention that an independent Scotland would not be allowed to use the Pound is sheer fantasy. There are plenty of examples throughout the world where currencies are used with no formal approval from the originating country. Anybody who takes this position is simply playing a card to try and put pressure on people to vote no. “Well, if you vote yes then you can’t have our money!!” – it’s pish, pure and simple.

I almost can’t quite believe that the question of borders is even realistically being pursued as an issue. We already have a prime example of where a ‘foreign’ country has open borders with the UK in our neighbours across the water in the Republic of Ireland. There are specific agreements that regulate the movement of people across these borders, and the idea that this couldn’t be extended to Scotland is nonsense. Like currency, it may well require negotiation, but to use as a weapon to dismiss independence is either ignorant of wilfully misleading.

Europe

Want to talk about conflict? The UK government consistently leads us into conflict with our closest of allies in Europe. Specifically, the current CON-DEM coalition is seeking to have us withdraw from many of the international agreements and unions that bind us together – including those that assure the protection of basic human rights. That isn’t just about being able to chuck some terrorist with a hook out of the country when we feel like it by the way – but the formal rescindment of our commitment to the end of capital punishment, and the use of torture.

With regards to Scotland’s membership of the European Union, the European Commission has said that they would give a definitive answer to the question if asked. So why don’t we have that yet? Because only the UK Government can formally request them to do so. They won’t.

That aside, this situation is without precedent in the EU. There are countless people in Scotland who have been European citizens by dint of the UK’s membership for decades. If independence nullified that overnight, there would be a far bigger headache than any administration would be able to handle – including those who are currently in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland through the rights of their partners. The European Community was not designed to allow for countries exiting, but to reduce barriers, harmonise laws, and further entrench members. It’s in nobody’s interests to exclude Scotland from the EU.

Whatever you decide, if you can vote, make sure that you do. This isn’t just some drop in the ocean like so many other elections, but one where what you vote can really make a difference. Demonstrate just how important this is, and whether the ultimate choice is to affirm the union, or declare independence, don’t let Scotland be dismissed.